Road Trip! Page 4

What other treasures? Oh, just the complete catalog of Deutsche Grammophon's Archiv Produktion label—every single recording—and every Telefunken Das Alte Werk recording, from first to last. Then there's the original "Archive" collection going back to the 1940s, filled with richly musical mono recordings. And did I mention the complete L'Oiseau Lyre Florilegium series—or the collection of operas on LP, which of course requires enormous space? It was dizzying.

Thoroughly impressed, I asked Tam, as we padded back to the listening room, what drove him to spend seven years raising the $1 million needed to build the Ralston library and to put together the audio system. "I used to run a concert series here and it was always packed, the students loved it. Things are different now . . . not many students show up for important concerts. Somehow, we've almost lost them. Listening to music has become a solitary, individual event for them."

Tam's compelling idea was to fascinate students with high-end sound. "Not to create equipment lust, but to realize that if music sounds so fantastic and communicative in our listening room, just imagine how they'll be blown away at a real concert. I know this'll work! Imagine, access to 25 complete sets of Beethoven symphonies, 38 Handel Messiahs—everything they need to compare great performances and quality of sound . . . the history of music, quite literally right here before their . . . ears.

"And yet it's ironic that they don't realize that music can be a shared, communal experience. But when they do realize that, they change. I've seen it happen in my home, and at other professors' homes, with lesser equipment than you see here. It's knowledge, care, the collection, and finally it's the music itself. I tease the students—I tell them MP3 is just organized noise, and not music! I challenge them to come and hear the difference . . . and they do. When I ask them to compare vinyl and CDs, every one of them prefers vinyl for its smoother, more continuous sound."

We sat down to listen. Tam set up an LP, Handel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op.6 No.7, from Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, on the Archiv label, and lowered the arm. I've listened to a fair number of high-end systems in my time—I have a high-end system—and I know what to expect. There's a certain familiar, recognizable signature to the sound of a well-set-up, high-performance, two-channel system: air, depth, out-of-speaker sound, smooth and extended frequency response, transparency without grain, inviting midrange textures, apparently limitless dynamic range, and tight, controlled bass with the fundamentals intact, no room flub.

Well, whatever that special system communication is, and however it's generated, this system had it to an outstanding degree. I had the uncanny feeling that I was hearing everything in the chain at some almost indefinably high level of resolution. The statuesque Alexandrias seemed to allow me to hear the Ayre electronics finely separate out each and every musical thread. The soundstage leapt from the confines of the speakers to organically inhabit the room—even in mono. It was a very, very tasty experience.

JA whipped out his laptop and plugged a USB cable into the Ayre DX-5. He played files of his recording of Cantus singing Eric Whitacre's Lux Aurumque, from Cantus's While You Are Alive, which he engineered (CD, Cantus CTS-1208), first at CD resolution, then from the 24-bit/88.2kHz master files. His 1997 recording of pianist Hyperion Knight's performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue followed, as a 24-bit/44.1kHz master file (CD edition, Stereophile STPH010-2). The sound was phenomenal; I bathed in it.

Tam then hit us with a mono LP from 1946, Rossini's The Thieving Magpie with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall. Then Maestro Toscanini again on another mono LP of another Rossini overture, William Tell, from 1953. Just amazing! That was followed by John McCormack's soulful rendition of Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeannie," recorded in 1934. Not a dry eye in the house, I tells ya. Breathtaking.

Homeward bound
All too soon, it was time to mount up and head for Atlanta, where the CEDIA Expo awaited. We said our farewells and fired up our metallic-blue interstate starship. Our electronic conscience directed us to I-24, down from the Cumberland Plateau and back toward Chattanooga, then over to I-75S, to Atlanta. We nodded our way to Louis Armstrong's performance of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," and Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet doing a gorgeous rendition of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." It was total bliss for this long-distance traveler. (I drove.)

We arrived at the Georgia World Congress Center around 4pm, just in time for the heavens to open up. The rain hit the car in horizontal sheets. Ten minutes later the sun was out and the humidity was rising, and I bade farewell to my traveling companion. The next morning, JA told the Ford's navigation system to show him the way to go home, set the cruise control and radar to follow a discreet distance behind a succession of lead-footed rabbits, set his iPod Classic to Shuffle, and did the 920 miles back to Brooklyn in a single stretch. Now that I had finally let him drive the Edge, he had a verdict: "the complete cross-country cruiser."

Thanks for inviting me along, John. It was a blast. Next time . . . let's do the Maserati!

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